Accessibility is a crucial, yet continuously overlooked, aspect of market research that insight experts need to re-introduce into the market research design stage. Having previously worked in historic houses where I was encouraged to walk around my site each day to view it from the position of a visitor — what is the first impression they get, do they understand where to go, can they access the facilities well — I now inherently consider accessibility in everything that I create. Even though I am working almost solely within the digital space, this consideration for accessibility is still as crucial as it was in the physical world.
More specifically, it has been this experience in historic houses, that has helped me the most when it comes to research design. The uneven, cobbled driveway might now be an older version of windows, but the practice of trying to experience what you are producing through the eyes of the people who will experience it is the same. And this is, I believe, even more important in the world of research.
A disinterested visitor in a historic house might walk away from a confusing piece of text or not be able to access a section of the estate, and might leave a bad review; but, in research, an unengaged participant who walks away is an unheard viewpoint, a missed opportunity, and ultimately affects the quality of that research.
Ensuring Readability and Understandability
When I was writing text for the museum, I would always focus on getting the content down very simply, using simple language that would be understood by as many people as possible. And now I approach research tasks in the same way.
A 2015 study into adult literacy rates suggested that 1 in 6 adults had ‘very poor literacy skills’, meaning they have literary skills below GCSE level. Whenever I am writing, I regularly remind myself that the average reading age of the British public is around the 9 years old mark. To put it in perspective, the same article recorded the Guardian newspaper having a reading age of 14, and the Sun has a reading age of 8. And, because you might not be familiar with their writing styles, for comparison, I ran this article through an online Gunning Fog Index programme, which classed this article as needing a graduate-level reading ability (marked as 17.15).
This is a lot higher than what I would aim for in research design; however, given the target audience of this article, a higher score is acceptable. If I wanted to reach a wider audience or test for consumer duty, where ideally you want a cross-population spread, I would aim for a little lower than the average 9-year-old. So, how do we as researchers ensure this is happening?
The Gunning Fog Index
One way we can do this is by applying a readability index, as I have above and trying to bring it down. One of the most accessible for these is the Gunning Fog index, as it has its own free website. The Gunning Fog index was invented by Robert Gunning, an American businessman who invented a simple formula to give blocks of text a score between 0 and 20, after his own text had been classified as ‘too hard to understand’.
Mustard Research tested the Gunning Fog index for market research design and presented their findings at the MRS &more conference 2023. Mustard Research found that when they presented a group of participants with a level 17 (graduate level) text, 75% of the participants found it easy or very easy to understand, and when this was then reduced to 12 (GCSE level) this rose to 84% of the respondents.
However, one of the downfalls of using this index, and many of the other readability indices, is that they often count long words (any word with over 3 syllables) as complex, and therefore associate them more with a higher reading level. In reality, words like ‘interesting’ and ‘beautiful’ are actually commonplace and easily understood, and shorter words like ‘thus’ and ‘vice’ are used less and familiarity with these words will have declined as a result. So, although using these scales can guarantee a high readability, that doesn’t always translate to understandability.
Speaking the Language of Participants
I was particularly interested when I came across a research project by Savanta in partnership with Sport England. To speak to their target audience of 16–24 year olds, a group that is generally under-represented in market research, ‘peer researchers’ were used. These ‘peer researchers’ were individuals from the same culturally diverse, or low-income background as the research participants, who were trained by Savanta’s research team to moderate a 5-day diary task.
Using researchers of a similar age and lived experience as the participants meant that they could better use the language and communication style that matched their participants. In reporting the findings of this research project, Savanta described how:
“The peer researchers helped interpret colloquial terms and explain the motivations behind the behaviour, which may not have been obvious to researchers who are much older than the participants themselves. By breaking cultural barriers and navigating nuances, subtleties and taboos, peer researchers can make sure that the research remains respectful and accurate.”
Now, we can’t always rely on having peer researchers around to help insight teams understand these colloquialisms and respond in kind. Still, we can take on board these findings and start to expand our vocabulary so we can tailor the research tasks to the participant audience in question.
Always Consider Accessibility
The Savanta project highlights how it is easy to become complacent when we write research tasks. Yes, I have written a lot of text and I always aim for it to be as simple and easy to understand as possible. And I always try to put myself in the participants’ shoes, but, it is too easy to slip into your own personal voice, and write tasks well enough without actually writing widely accessible text. With indices like the Gunning Fog and an awareness that high-level reading abilities are not universal, we can get as close as possible to designing research that has a high standard of readability and understandability.
It is in everyone’s interests to use universally understood language — stakeholders and decision-makers across the company will benefit indirectly from insight teams prioritising accessibility in their research design. The more participants can read and understand research tasks, the better-quality data we will receive, the more high-quality insights we can pull from said data, and the more successful decisions stakeholders make off the back of them.
This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insights Blog and can be accessed here.